Steelers' Colbert looks for young players to step up on defense next season

| Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, 9:06 p.m.

In one season under Keith Butler, the Steelers defense made significant improvements — points were down, sacks and turnovers were significantly up, and their situational football (red zone and goal-to-go) was dramatically better.

How do they get better in Year 2?

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has a theory: Somebody do a Stephon Tuitt and make a significant jump from one year to the next.

While the secondary continued to struggle — team president Art Rooney II and Colbert separately acknowledged that is the area that needs improved during the offseason — Colbert said the way to continue making positives steps on defense will not be with a plug-and-play free agent.

“I think it's more than that. I think it's the young guys. I think the young guys will have to continue to improve,” Colbert said. “We need to see, we talked about that last year, the progression has to outpace the regression of some of the older guys.”

On paper, the Steelers don't seem to be near that point yet.

They've used first-round picks in four of the past five years on defense, with Cam Heyward, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. Tuitt was a second-rounder two years ago. The only players who arguably could regress would be Lawrence Timmons, who will turn 30 in May, or William Gay (if he returns).

“I think outside help will be important but also those young guys taking that next step,” Colbert said.

Heyward made the progression Colbert was talking about two years ago, and Tuitt did it last year. When healthy, Shazier appeared primed to do the same thing. Colbert liked how Jones played in his first non-injury season but admitted he would like to see more sacks from him.

“So, next year I think a guy like Bud Dupree,” Colbert said. “I think you saw Ryan Shazier take a step when he was healthy. But, you want more from those guys, and you know they haven't peaked yet, or they shouldn't have peaked at this point.”

Prime example is what Tuitt did last year.

Tuitt struggled to get on the field his rookie year before making significant contributions over the final month. Tuitt parlayed that into a starting role and was one of the more disruptive players on defense.

Tuitt was second on the team with 6 12 sacks and, when active, played in almost 90 percent of the defensive plays. Tuitt finished with 54 tackles and had a key interception against the Cincinnati Bengals late in the regular season.

“Stephon really took that next step last year,” Colbert said. “Sure, we're going to have help from the outside and (see) how quickly a veteran can acclimate himself to our scheme, if we bring in a veteran. Or how quickly a rookie can get up to speed where he can provide help. That all remains to be seen. But you want the guys who were here last year to take a significant step. I think you saw that.”

The Steelers are going to need a significant step taken by somebody in their secondary even if it is by one of their free agents, such as Antwon Blake if they choose to re-sign him. More likely it will have to come from last year's second-round pick Senquez Golson. He missed his rookie season after suffering a shoulder injury during OTAs in the spring but appears to be primed to be this year's Tuitt.

“He was around, he got some of the OTAs, no training camp even though he was there,” Colbert said. “He saw it, he experienced it, he saw some of the regular season. But as far as stepping on the field, that will be brand new for him in training camp and especially once the games start, it will be new for us.”

The secondary was the weak spot on defense last year, allowing 271 passing yards per game and six quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards.

“I think when you look back on our losses this year, we didn't close the game out when we had an opportunity to do so,” Colbert said. “We won more than we lost, but the ones we lost, we just didn't finish it. That's the key component for our improvement next year.”

That and having somebody to take that next step.

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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